When the San Diego Collegiate Baseball League decided to switch to wood bats this summer, few expected the results to be quite so dramatic.
Though the wood bats are a hit with batsmen, pitchers, coaches and scouts, they are also producing far fewer hits, especially the long ones.
Some examples: The Mets' Andy Williams (of Kansas State University) set an SDCBL record last summer with nine home runs. He has precisely nine fewer this season.
The Padres' Rick Brail (Saddleback College) set a league record last summer with a .460 batting average. He's hitting .206 this year.
With five games remaining in the regular season, the Angels' Todd Wilson (Mesa College) and the Padres' Mike Vallarelli (San Jose State) share the league lead with two homers apiece, and 14 players are tied with one each.
With a league-leading .460 batting average, the Angels' Tom Afenir (Palomar College) is on pace to match Brail's single-season batting record, but Vallarelli (.375) and Wilson (.373) are the only players within 93 points of him. No. 30 on this year's list--the Indians' Eric Morton (University of San Diego)--is hitting .217, about 80 points lower than the No. 30 player normally hits.
It could go on . . . and on and on.
"It's a big change," the Cubs' Byron Grigsby (Baker University) said. "Batting averages are down. Home runs are way down. Some guys are really struggling."
Grigsby was the hero of last year's championship series, hitting a game-winning, title-clinching, 11th-inning home run, as the Cubs beat the Angels in the decisive third game to win their first championship. But that was with an aluminum bat. With the woods this year, Grigsby has yet to homer.
As for the defending champion Cubs, they've compiled a league-low .219 team batting average this season, and averages on the whole are down about 50 points per team. The Angels (.297) lead the league, followed by the Mets (.261), Royals (.256), Padres (.247), Indians (.235) and Cubs.
Blame it on the bat.
"You lose a lot of power," the Angels' Duke Gonzalez (Eastern New Mexico University) said. "With the woods, you've got to hit everything on the meat of the bat. There's no mercy with these wood bats."
Said the Angels' Chris Schockley (University of Missouri): "As far as the difference goes, the wood bats are more top heavy. They're not as balanced as the aluminum bats. With wood, the ball doesn't jump off the bat nearly as well."
The Cubs' Ryan Daly (Lubbock Christian University): "It kind of brings everybody down to reality."
The decision to switch to wood bats came from SDCBL president Gerald Clements.
"It's something we've wanted to do for some time," Clements said, "but financially we never could do it. So I asked Major League Baseball for a raise. I asked for $5,000, and they gave us $3,000. I said, 'Well, I think I can massage the budget a little. Let's give it a go.' "
The SDCBL is one of 10 NCAA-sanctioned summer leagues funded by Major League Baseball. According to Clements, the league received $33,000 this year, $5,000 of which went to purchasing 34 dozen wood bats from Adirondack.
It wasn't enough. Because of breakages--teams are averaging about two broken bats per game and the unofficial league record is nine in one game--Clements has had to order another eight dozen bats.
"It's been quite an experience," Clements said. "The kids seem to enjoy it, but they're paying the price. Some of these--no, none of these kids have ever used (wood bats) on a consistent basis."
Dominic Dirksen (UC San Diego), Brian Monreal (College of the Desert) and Eric Slinkard (Upper Iowa University) were three such players who had never used wood bats before this summer.
Cost-efficient, durable, less sting, more pop; aluminum bats had always given them a certain sense of security. Then along came the 1992 SDCBL season and a recent game between the Cubs and the Angels at Grossmont College.
As Dirksen approached the bat rack in the bottom of the first inning, he mumbled to himself, "Where's that one with the . . . Oh sweet, it's not broken yet."
He promptly broke it on a foul ball.
Upon doing so, Monreal noted: "I need to break one of these. I must not be swinging it right."
His next time up, he got a broken-bat single to right.
Slinkard broke his on a ground out in the first inning, then hit a home run his next time up.
"The scouts in this area want to see who can hit with the wood bats," Angel Manager John Verdusco said. "That's what this league is all about. Giving (college) players a chance to work on some things and giving them an opportunity to do it in front of the scouts. I really think it helps the players and the scouts."
One major league scout attending the Angels-Cubs game agreed.
"If a guy can hit, he's going to hit," the scout said. "It doesn't matter what you put in their hands.
"This gives us a chance to see their real potential, to see their real power. I came out and watched them their first few games, and they were terrible. A month later, they're a whole lot better. Still not good, but better. It takes time."
Said Daly: "I'm looking forward to going back to aluminum (for the college season). But this has been fun. It's a neat feeling when you really connect with one of these things."